I am crazy about poetry. Absolutely besotted. Poetry has helped me though the darkest days I’ve endured; it’s calmed me down during minor surgeries; it’s helped me remember experiences I never want to lose to the horizon; and it’s helped me put out of my mind destructive vexations.  Poetry is so utterly a part of my life, my everyday, that I am still astonished when I run into people who dislike poetry, who distrust poetry, who even fear poetry.  As any lover prickles in unrest unless everyone else acknowledges the magnificence of their beloved, I find myself wanting to draw my friends, my family, my colleagues into my inductive field of admiration.

This column is for those who are nervous about poetry, those who have had a nervous breakdown from the effects of poetry stuffed down their gullets by bad teachers. For those who have felt belittled or just bewildered by what they have been cajoled to admire, under pain of being called Philistines.  For those who have found their intelligence insulted by shallow irrelevance.  This column is not about educating you, but rather sharing delights with you, with the full understanding that you will like some of it, and dislike some of it, and that, that’s OK.  I’ll present different ideas and themes regarding poetry each time, and I’ll always have a poem or two to share, and I hope I can put you in the mood to share alike. To tell me why the poems I pick work for you, or why they do not.  To tell me in general why you love or hate poetry.  Each column is just a touchstone for discussion. I want to hear about your experiences with poetry, or lack of same, whether good or bad, satisfying or enervating.

First of all, since this is the 21st century, I want you to know that in your experiences with poetry you have the prerogative of individual liberty.  You have the right to like what you like, and to hate what you hate.  It would seem this doesn’t need saying, but in dealing with people’s problems with poetry I often hear that they feel they would be treated as uncouth or shallow if they admitted not getting what was the big deal about some Shakespeare sonnet, or some Whitman piece.  My personal motto comes from an Ezra Pound piece that I expect would not be everyone’s cup of tea.


What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross.


It’s perfectly OK to roll your eyes at the archaic second person form.  What the line itself is saying is that what you have come to love is what matters, and you don’t even need to bother with the rest.  If poetry is not giving you pleasure, then for you it is a failure, and that is OK.  Poetry is diverse enough that you will find something to love well.  My only agendum is to make a few modest suggestions, and have a give-and-take with you that informs my future suggestions.  Above all, I want the entire process to be fun.  If you ever learned about poetry in a musty room, with the dark drapes whispering to you in Greek, Latin and nasal Queen’s English in perfect Received Pronunciation, it’s time to rip the shades down, and let the sun stream in.  (I happen to love Greek and Latin and all that, but that’s because I was fortunate enough to find it for myself in a sunny, green field).

So without further ado, here is the first poem.


“Benediction” by Stanley Kunitz.

God banish from your house
The fly, the roach, the mouse

That riots in the walls
Until the plaster falls;

Admonish from your door
The hypocrite and liar;

No shy, soft tigrish fear
Permit upon your stair,

Nor agents of your doubt.
God drive them whistling out.

Let nothing touched with evil,
Let nothing that can shrivel

Heart’s tenderest frond, intrude
Upon your still deep blood.

Against the drip of night
God keep all windows tight,

Protect your mirrors from
Surprise, delirium,

Admit no trailing wind
Into your shuttered mind

To plume the lake of sleep
With dreams. If you must weep

God give you tears, but leave
You secrecy to grieve,

And islands for your pride,
And love to nest in your side.

God grant that, to the bone,
Yourself may be your own;

God grant that I may be
(my sweet) sweet company.


This is one of many poems I have off-head, and is a favorite for me to recite to my kids at bed time.  It’s gentle, understated, and yet quite rich.  It’s in a beat called iambic trimeter: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM, which keeps it light-hearted, but generally when Kunitz uses the word “God” he does so in what’s called a spondee, with two strong syllables in succession.  “God ban(ish),” “God drive,” “God keep,” “God give,””God grant,” “God grant.”  These spondees punctuate the lighthearted rhythm with emphasis that suggests the seriousness of the blessings, and the repetition at the end rounds out the poem with sweet insistence.  Repetition is one of the most important devices in poetry.  Poetry should be memorable.  You should find it coming to your mind at unexpected times.

Kunitz, an American poet, was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (AKA US Poet Laureate), most recently in 2000.  He lived to see his 100th birthday before he died.  I’ve generally tended to dislike the work of those who become US Poet Laureate, but there is a lot from Kunitz to admire.

“Benediction” is one of the poems in my favorite volume of poetry, from which a good number of my suggestions will come.


“Parachute men” by Lenrie Peters

Parachute men say
The first jump
Takes the breath away
Feet in the air disturb
Till you get used to it.

Solid ground
Is not where you left it
As you plunge down
Perhaps head first

As you listen to
Your arteries talking
You learn to sustain hope.

Suddenly you are only
Holding an umbrella
In a windy place
As the warm earth
Reaches out to you
Reassures you
The vibrating interim is over

You try to land
Where green grass yields
And carry your pack
Across the fields

The violent arrival
Puts out the joint
Earth has nowhere to go
You are at the staring point

Jumping across worlds
In condensed time
After the awkward fall
We are always at the starting point


This is one of my favorite African poems in English.  Lenrie Peters was Gambian, but connected to Sierra Leone, and one of the more eloquent voices of pan-Africanism.  He was educated as a surgeon, but he published several books of poetry and a novel.  “Parachute Men” isn’t in a fixed meter, and only occasionally uses rhyme at the end of lines, and I’ve always said you hear its structure more clearly if you can hear it in a West African accent.  Regardless of accent it has a restless cadence that accompanies the gently shifting images.  Again you can see the power of repetition in the last two stanzas.  There is of course a marvelous double-entendre in “puts out the joint,” in a stanza that captures very strongly the finality of arrival, and its looping permanence.

Tell me what you think of these poems.  What do you like about them?  What about poetry in general?  What have been your experiences?  Do you have any poems you recommend to people who normally wouldn’t bother with poetry?  Any poets you wished more people would check out?  Any thoughts on big-name poems or poets you find overrated?

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards. To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

140 responses to “Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1”

  1. Irene Zion says:


    I started off my kids early with poetry.
    Shel Silverstein was one of their favorites.
    One I am sure they still know today is “Lazy Jane.”


    At the bottom of the page is a drawing of Lazy Jane lying there with her mouth wide open.
    The poem is written with center alignment.

    Another one, many, many pages long is an enormous poem called
    “The Giant jam Sandwich,” by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway.
    I’ll bet all five of my kids, and my grandkids, can recite most of it once they start!

    Kids seem to enjoy the meter and the rhyme, regardless of their ages.
    Grownups sometimes forget.

    • Brandy says:

      I love Shel Silverstein! You know he’s banned in many elementary school libraries?

      • Irene Zion says:


        • Brandy says:

          He’s been accused of several things; satanic, sexual, anti-christian, and cannibalistic ([email protected]?!) references.

        • Irene Zion says:


          That is just plain lunacy!

        • Erika Rae says:

          Lunacy, indeed. But Irene, I’m just impressed you’ve figured out center alignment for comments. Respect!

        • Irene Zion says:


          Would that I could accept that praise.
          I have tried many times to get WordPress to do center alignment, but have failed miserably.
          The fix was by the brilliant polymath, Uche, himself.
          Alas, I still have much to learn.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          You’re too kind, Irene. To center stuff, put “< center>” at the beginning (important: but omit the quotes and remove the space after the “< "). And then "< /center>” at the end of the centered part (again no quotes and remove the space). Note: instructions updated in-place once I realized they were incomplete.

          Warning: sorry, but it turns out this, like the u (underline) tag, does not work for regular commenters.

          How doth the little crocodile
          Improve his shining tail,
          And pour the waters of the Nile
          On every golden scale!

          How cheerfully he seems to grin,
          How neatly spreads his claws,
          And welcomes little fishes in
          With gently smiling jaws!

          (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course)

        • Irene Zion says:

          This is Shel Silverstein in 1981 from his book: “A Light in the Attic”

          BEAR IN THERE

          There’s a Polar Bear
          In our Frigidaire–
          He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
          With his seat in the meat
          And his face in the fish
          And his big hairy paws
          In the buttery dish,
          He’s nibbling the noodles,
          He’s munching the rice,
          He’s slurping the soda,
          He’s licking the nice.
          And he lets out a roar
          If you open the door.
          And it gives me a scare
          To know he’s in there–
          That Polary Bear
          In our Fridgitydaire.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I don’t see the center tags. I wonder if it’s a question of permissions on the site. I’m going to try again, anonymously, in a different browser…

        • Onwero says:

          This is Uche testing…

          Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
          Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          A ha! Irene, it’s not your fault at all. Apparently I’m recognized as an admin and allowed to do things others can’t. Sorry about that, but if you’d like me to center anything for you, in this post, or in others, just let me know.

          If you ever need that in another post what you do is post the comment, and then go to the main page for the “recent comments” listing. Then right mouse button click on your comment and “copy link” then paste the link into a message to me and tell me what bit you’d like centered.

        • Irene Zion says:

          So, in other words,
          you have SUPER POWERS, Uche!
          I bow to your prowess.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I promise to use them only for good 🙂

        • Aaron Dietz says:

          You were only testing, but…”the centre cannot hold” – I can’t think of a more powerful four words.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Nice one. I don’t remember reading much Silverstein, though I’m sure I must have, but I do remember reading Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and its like that. I sort of waded into the thick stuff pretty early, though. My father liked Kipling, though I can’t stand Kipling now, and I remember finding The Raven a thrill, though I can’t stand that poem now. I guess one lesson from that is that you can appreciate poetry differently at different stages of your life.

      Poetry is rarely far from children’s books, because as you say, they wrap themselves in the sort of patterns that are stitched into the poet’s trade bag. The repetition in “Lazy Jane” tells as much of the tale as the semantics of the individual words themselves, doesn’t it?

    • Judy Prince says:

      Irene and Brandy and Uche and Erika Rae, here’s a Shel Silverstein poem that my kid and I used to laugh at a lot:

      NOT ME

      by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

      The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
      He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me.
      No, you won’t catch me, Old Slithergadee,
      You may catch all the others, but you wo–

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Oh marvelous! Oddly, I asked Lori why we don’t have any Silverstein for the kids, and she said “not really; I don’t like it; it’s kinda weird.” I usually buy the poetry for the kids, and we have Edmund Lear, All that R.L. Stevenson “Counterpane” stuff, Lewis Carroll, of course, and a lot of anthologies, but mostly at what modern presses inexplicably categorize as adolescent level.

        Anyway, the Slithergadee made me immediately think of Carroll’s Boojum, and inspired me to a, uh, snap, do they call it?

        The Baker called out “what’s a Slithergadee?
        It’s the Snark I’m a hunting, and ain’t hunting me”
        Poor Baker had run out of moments to flee
        Finding Slithergadee/Boojum/Snark trinity.


  2. Irene Zion says:

    oops, “she” isn’t capitalized, can you fix that?

  3. Lenore Zion says:

    i love that benediction one. it sounds awesome read aloud, so i’m not surprised you read it to your kids at bedtime. i should make you call me when i’m ready for bed and you can read it to me. or i guess i could make my own dad do it. anyway, i like it a lot.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Maybe I should record it on mp3 for you. As a matter of fact, I should do that anyway. I should record readings of all the poems I share in this column. After all, nothing betrays love better than the breath, and the delight steeped into the words between breath.

      And if you can get your Dad to record it, I’d happily put up that mp3 as well.

      And of course, I’m always willing and recite a poem over the phone to you to help you get ready for bed. What else are friends for?

  4. Brandy says:

    I adore the line “Heart’s tenderest frond, intrude Upon your still deep blood.” I actually have an idea for a painting. I’m very excited!!

    I really enjoyed “Parachute Men”. Everyday is a leap-of-faith. I was writing a friend a letter the other night, and I was telling him how I felt about change–that a violent act must occur to create a catalyst. My gypsy-self ripping the life-fabric, the threads that hold me, although painful both to myself and others.

    Whenever we jump, we never arrive exactly as we should. The world spun beneath us while we flung ourselves over the edge. And for one still moment we are euphoric with what we have wrought, before the ground reaches up. And isn’t life about those moments of faith?

    Poetry took me through a difficult adolescence. Everything painful that I couldn’t speak of, took life in ink. Thank you for sharing this Uche. I look forward to more.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Brandy, yes you picked out one of the masterstrokes. The idea of a “frond” of a heart tied up with the old idea of a “heartstring”, which we now know does not exist in human anatomy, but which are so important to us in metaphor. The image is of the heartstring of the narrator reaching into his sweet’s blood to lend its rhythm. Of course, one doesn’t have to assess it all so deeply. I just can’t help myself 🙂

      And yes, again you get “Parachute Men” dead on. Peters was dealing with the ultimate faith—faith that the young nations that he and his generation strove so hard to bring into existence would flourish. They landed. Their heady journey, their the awkward fall had brought them to what seemed a natural conclusion. And yet they were at the starting point. They were always at the starting point. And so it is in our lives as well.

      Did you notice your taste in poetry changing in your emergence from the difficult days you mention? As I understand you, writing was a good bit of the therapy, but I assume you read poetry as well? If so, and if it’s not too personal, can you mention a few of the poems that have you particular solace?

      • Brandy says:

        If I can find my old journal, I’ll email you some of my teenage attempts at poetry.

        As for poems that offered solace during the teen years–I think one poem that stands out is Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning. Others that struck a chord would be Plath’s Lady Lazarus and T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men

        When I was younger I tended to gravitate towards romantic period poetry (–Which I still adore! One of my favorite anthropology classes in college was called Vampires & Soul Survivors, and looked at the impact of ‘monsters’ on culture). Now I really dig free verse, but it depends on my mood.

        I cannot wait to finish this painting.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh mummy! “Not Waving but Drowning” is fantastic. I’m sure I’ve read some Smith, though I can’t now remember anything else, but I think that particular poem is a discovery for me. Thanks.

          I can certainly see how “Lady Lazarus” and “The Hollow Men” would draw an emphatic line through stress and angst. Any chance you also happened to run into Hopkins back then? I found “Carrion Comfort” another one of those poems for me, as well as “Daddy,” Thomas Hardy’s “Hap” and the last part of Pound’s “Canto LXXXI”, from which my personal motto, as mentioned in the post. I could stomp around in my room snarling:

          The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
          Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
          Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
          Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
          Learn of the green world what can be thy place
          In scaled invention or true artistry,
          Pull down thy vanity…

          Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
          A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
          Half black half white
          Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
          Pull down thy vanity
          How mean thy hates
          Fostered in falsity,
          Pull down thy vanity,
          Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
          Pull down thy vanity,

          I bet Artistotle’s promise of catharsis from poetry was rarely as thoroughly realized as it was with me in those moments. The werewolf’s shuddering bristles could retreat back into my skin.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh, and I cannot wait to catch a glimpse at this painting 🙂

        • Brandy says:

          I found a new poem for you? That made my day. 🙂

        • Brandy says:

          –and I’m not familiar with those you mentioned. But I’ll do a little homework and get back to you.

        • Shame on you, Uche — you *seriously never come on Stevie Smith? (She even makes it into Norton! [g]) “Not waving but drowning” is the classic anthology poem she gets typed by, but “Persons From Porlock” is my personal favourite.

          If you have a dollar to spare, that should buy you a copy of the Penguin Selected, which I think has a few of her drawings, though not as many as the Penguin Collected.

          There’s also a watchable biopic called _Stevie_ (starring, I think, Glenda Jackson) that sensibly lifts most of the dialogue from one of her novels — _Novel on Yellow Paper_.

          I had the priviledge of actually hearing her read once. in person — Edinburgh Festival in 1964. God, she was good — a class act in every sense of the word, or so it seemed to my then early adolescent brain.

          But … I remember also thinking. “Nobody’s fucking *listening to her!” — she was immediately preceded by W.D.Snodgrass emoting all over the shop, and followed by some twitch who seemed to have decided that he could justify his fee at the Festival by reciting undigested hunks — literally, he even held up the book! — of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.

          In a rosta that included inter alia the young Ted Hughes …

          Was it because she was A Woman Poet?

          Or that her work was so firmly rooted in middle-class Southern English accent and culture?

          Or that writing light verse (in the technical sense that Auden deploys) was a hiding to nothing in a rigidly UK-anglophone writing culture?

          Looking back across forty yeats, I think all three factors were at work, but that the real killer, why nobody in that entiire bloody sudience seemed to be noticing that what we had was possibly one of the finest then living English language poets reading to us, was that she was funny.

          *Don’t let you daughter tell jokes in a poem, Mrs. Worthington. If she wants to be treated seriously.”

          (Years later, after a quite seriously funny reading by Greg Woods, during which I spent much of the time trying *not to howl with laughter, since given the Pious Attention that Greg was being greeted with, this would have marked me down immediately as A Raving Homophobe, I asked Greg, “Hey, does it ever bother you that no one laughs at your jokes?”

          “No,” he said in a tone of glum understanding, “I’ve got used to it.”)


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Hey R,

          A good a time as any to provide my disclaimer. I’m no child of any curriculum whatsoever. I’m sure I’m missing vast tracts of stuff that would astonish any examiner. Interesting that you mention the Norton. My literary coterie at Nigerian Uni was divided between two camps. Those who swore by the Norton, and sniffed at the The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, and the reverse. I was in the OAEL camp, and in my case it wasn’t as much a matter of sniffing at the Norton, but just not having time given the attention I was paying to the OAEL. I have since copped the pocket Norton Anthology of Poems, and I’m pretty sure Smith is not in that.

          I have dozens of anthologies, and I suppose it’s inevitable that “Not waving but drowning” is in one of them, but I’ll have many more such blind spots. Yes. I’m a student as much as anyone else in this particular journey, but in my defence, I do think that if I fall down on certain schools of British poets, I make up for it with, say, my knowledge of the Nsukka School, or maybe of poets who’ve never been respectably translated from Langue d’Oc, and there is always my hip-hop scholarship, so for Stevie Smith, I can swap in Talib Kweli or MF Doom 😀

          From what I have read of Smith, she’s much more readable than Snodgrass, so shame about the inattentive audience. I suppose it could have been her sex, or geography, or mistaken fixation on serious themes, none of which would surprise me one bit, but I wonder whether they were just looking for the big name?

  5. Zara Potts says:

    If only I had had a teacher like you, Uche, when I was at high school. As you say – a shitty teacher can ruin poetry so easily. I hated Sylvia Plath for a long, long time because of one particular teacher I had who absolutely worshipped her. It hasn’t been until recently that I have been able to begin to appreciate her work.
    As for poets I like – I adore Manley-Hopkins. Simply for the way he uses language. But I do like Auden and Thomas and the romantics.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Aw, thanks, Zara. I’m curious whether there was something in particular your teacher did that was problematic. I’ve heard from a lot of people that bad teachers put them off poetry. I suppose maybe there’s nothing particular to report. I can imagine that even a lack of enthusiasm on the teacher’s part would be enough of a turn-off.

      For my part I don’t really remember ever having been taught poetry until well after I was deep into my own exploration. I’m sure I must have, but I’ve always been a naughty student, and likely to be reading another book carefully hidden under the approved classroom text, when I wasn’t pelting the teacher with smart-arse questions. It’s possible I was just oblivious to the bad-poetry-teacher phenomenon.

      And as you know, Zara, I love Plath and Hopkins, too, so I’ll be sharing from their books at some point. I also like a decent quantity of Auden and Dylan Thomas (you meant Dylan, I assume?) The Romantics frequently find ways to put me off, but when they are good, they are dynamite.

      Are you aware of any New Zealand poets I should maybe check out?

      • Zara Potts says:

        Allen Curnow, Bill Manhire and Janet Frame come to mind for good NZ poets.

        And from a Maori perspective – Hone Tuwhare – who I am particularly fond of.

        As for bad teachers, it wasn’t even so much that the teacher I had was bad or boring – It was just that we clashed badly and so anything she liked was instant anathema to me.

        And yes, I agree, The Romantics can sometimes make me want to slit my wrists, but as a friend said to me the other day, on a good day – they’re unbeatable.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Thanks. I’ll check those poets out. As for the Romantics, I just read “Kublai Khan” again today (I probably read it every few months, and have much of it memorized, but not the whole thing). What absolute luxury of sight and sound and feeling! I curse the idjit neighbor who came by Coleridge’s house while he was in the middle of the inspired frenzy that birthed the poem. You probably know the story, but Coleridge felt it ungentlemanly to turn away the house guest, and so entertained him until the inspiration was gone, and we’re left with only a fragment of the entire vision.


        • Zara Potts says:

          I didn’t know that story! Asshole neighbour.. Imagine what could have been.

        • Erika Rae says:

          This is wonderful, Uche. I’ve always wished I had a little guide to the poetry you love. I feel that it makes a better canon than, well, the canon. Two excellent choice to begin with.

          I sympathize with Coleridge. I feel that every time I sit down to write, my mother calls. It is so very disruptive.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Erika, thanks. I certainly do hope others come to love the poems I love, but the most important thing for folks who follow me on this journey to know is that my choices are informed by a lifetime’s work, made a nothing burden by a lifetime’s love.

          But, hmm. There is nothing to be done about Coleridge’s neighbor, but in your case, maybe we need a covert ops action. How do we get you to a hermitage or nunnery where we can be sure there will be no interruptions of your creative process. We want that book without delay!

        • ” I just read “Kublai Khan” again today (I probably read it every few months, and have much of it memorized, but not the whole thing). What absolute luxury of sight and sound and feeling! I curse the idjit neighbor who came by Coleridge’s house while he was in the middle of the inspired frenzy that birthed the poem.”

          There’s a MacNeice connection here too, Uche, to do with those intruding neighbours …

          MacNeice’s last radio play, broadcast a few months after he died, was called “Persons From Porlock”.

          I was in my late teens at the time, heavily into MacNeice’s poetry, when I heard it, and it frightened the wits out of me — a voice from beyond the grave summing up what, about to die, he felt his life had been worth.


          Not a bundle of laughs.


      • Uche:

        “Are you aware of any New Zealand poets I should maybe check out?”

        James K. Baxter


        (My favourite, “Lament for Barney Flannegan”, but possibly the Jerusalem Sonnets would be a safer heads-up to give.

        There’s Fleur Adcock, but I never managed to go a bundle on her writing. R)

        • Oops. sorry, missed Zara’s response — she’s more up to speed on current NZ poetry than me.


        • Zara Potts says:

          No, I’m glad you mentioned Baxter. Completely forgot about him!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Dear Rodent, could you paste in or type in a Baxter poem?

        • Lament for Barney Flanagan


          Flanagan got up on a Saturday morning,
          Pulled on his pants while the coffee was warming;
          He didn’t remember the doctor’s warning,
          “Your heart’s too big, Mr. Flanagan.”

          Barney Flanagan, sprung like a frog
          From a wet root in an Irish bog –
          May his soul escape from the tooth of the dog!
          God have mercy on Flanagan.

          Barney Flanagan R.I.P.
          Rode to his grave on Hennessy’s
          Like a bottle-cork boat in the Irish Sea.
          The bell-boy rings for Flanagan.

          Barney Flanagan, ripe for a coffin,
          Eighteen stone and brandy-rotten,
          Patted the housemaid’s velvet bottom –
          “Oh, is it you, Mr. Flanagan?”

          The sky was bright as a new milk token.
          Bill the Bookie and Shellshock Hogan
          Waited outside for the pub to open –
          “Good day, Mr. Flanagan.”

          At noon he was drinking in the lounge bar corner
          With a sergeant of police and a racehorse owner
          When the Angel of Death looked over his shoulder –
          “Could you spare a moment, Flanagan?”

          Oh the deck was cut; the bets were laid;
          But the very last card that Barney played
          Was the Deadman’s Trump, the bullet of Spades –
          “Would you like more air, Mr. Flanagan?”

          The priest came running but the priest came late
          For Barney was banging at the Pearly Gate.
          St Peter said, “Quiet! You’ll have to wait
          For a hundred masses, Flanagan.”

          The regular boys and the loud accountants
          Left their nips and their seven-ounces
          As chickens fly when the buzzard pounces –
          “Have you heard about old Flanagan?”

          Cold in the parlour Flanagan lay
          Like a bride at the end of her marriage day.
          The Waterside Workers’ Band will play
          A brass goodbye to Flanagan.

          While publicans drink their profits still.
          While lawyers flock to be in at the kill,
          While Aussie barmen milk the till
          We will remember Flanagan.

          For Barney had a send-off and no mistake.
          He died like a man for his country’s sake;
          And the Governor-General came to his wake.
          Drink again to Flanagan!

          Despise not, O Lord, the work of Thine own hands
          And let light perpetual shine upon him.

          James K. Baxter

          I haven’t checked the text of this against my Collected Baxter (which might or might not be somewhere among a pile of books on the dictionary table in the diningroom).

          Unnervingly, I found it on a site entitled, “Prayers for recovering alcoholics.”


          (Damn!! I really ought to work out a way to include that in _Musa Pedestris2_! Baxter had a sure ear for the speech of the Street.)


        • Judy Prince says:

          Thanks, dear Rodent, I love that one!

          Here’s my fave kiddie rhyme (dunno who wrote it):


          Ginger, Ginger, broke the winder,
          Hit the winder–Crack!
          The baker came out to give ‘im a clout
          And landed on ‘is back.


          You might want to mention Opies’ books for nursery rhymes and such for Uche’s kids and other kids. What a treasure it is!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          R, Oh me, oh my, “Lament for Barney Flanagan” is wicked good. I hope I don’t get rumbled that this entire column business is just a ruse to milk my friends of fabulous poems I haven’t encountered…

          I admit being annoyed at those last two lines Baxter couldn’t see his way to to excising. Ruined the perfect ending, he did.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Judy, I’m familiar with the Opie & Opie, which was easy enough to find in Nigeria, but I don’t have a copy now. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’d be in a hurry to bring it into my kids’ spheres, but hey, why not. I’ll pick up a used copy on the High Street next time I’m across the Pond.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Wonderful that you’re letting us see into your love of poetry and your showing us some of your fave poems, Uche. Often, people’s responses to poems seem wildly different, and I’m sure you’re fully aware of that; hence, your encouraging us to feel free in our reactions and opinions.

    Incredibly, shortly before I read your post I had packaged up to send to my 6 yr old grandboys a mystery novel by C. Day Lewis called The Otterbury Incident illustrated by Edward Arizzone. Lewis was Oxford University Professor of Poetry from 1951-1956 as well as Poet Laureate of Great Britain from 1967-1972. Wonderfully fitting that you and others grew up on poetry! Your launch may intrigue parents to grab a poem or poetry book for night-time reading to their kids.

    I loved the fresh images (esp the umbrella!) in Lenrie Peters’ Umbrella Men. The poem’s so simply presented, falling easily like ripe fruit, line by line, to new revelations.

    Thanks, Uche! :P;;;;;;

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I had a bit of a phase of enjoying C Day Lewis, right around the mid-90s, I think. I owned a sky blue book of his selected poems, and now I’m wondering where that is. I have had occasion to revisit him more recently, and my more recent impression is quite different. I find myself wishing for more depth. He is a very apt stylist, to be sure, and a powerful advocate for Albion, hence his laureateship.

      I don’t know that I’ve read any of his fiction.

      I’m glad you enjoyed “Umbrella Men”. I remember reading it first in Modern Poetry from Africa, a collection by Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore, which was required reading for most Nigerians in the Humanities branch of senior secondary school. I’m so grateful that I was in the Sciences branch, because it meant I was able to explore the book on my own terms. I probably liked ten percent of the poems, but I later learned that part of the problem was rather pedestrian translations of e.g. Senghor and Césaire. Once I had a chance to read those in their original French, I was absolutely blown away.

      Here is a Senghor with my own translation, which is still a damp squib against the original.


      • Judy Prince says:

        Uche, the few C Day Lewis poems I’ve read didn’t knock me out or over much, and I read them only after realising from his children’s mystery novel, Otterbury Incident, that he was a poet—-and both the POP as well as Laureate.

        Thanks for the tip on underlines; will see if it worked in the para above.

        Senghor’s poem (in French) and your translation (in English) fascinate me. The first line is so striking, in both yours and his versions! After that, though, in both your versions, I get lost and don’t know why. It seems quite straightforward, but I don’t get the logic or the reasoning, other than on a very limited simple level. Ah well, p’raps next week or month or year or minute I’ll see what I never saw. 😉

        A silly ditty next:

        by James Reeves (1909-1978)

        The King sent for his wise men all
        To find a rhyme for W.
        When they had thought a good long time,
        But could not think of a single rhyme,
        ‘I’m sorry,’ said he, ‘to trouble you.’

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Re: “Le Totem,” that is fair enough. I don’t think Senghor, Césaire or Okigbo would be among those I’m likely to share in my main posts of this column 😉

          The poets of that generation were certainly as determined to be moderner-than-thou versus Western poets, and I do think occasionally lost the plot, and it can take some real patience to appreciate them, and I’m not one to advocate that it’s the reader’s job to have patience on behalf of the poet.

          In the case of this poem, I think Senghor is speaking of his ancestral culture (the totems) and its imperatives, and how it strains against Western-instituted bounds, with counter-appeal from “faithful blood” and “inborn pride.” I vacillated between “lucky” and “happy” in that last line. “Happy” works, but you have to be open to the older connotation which covers “luck” as well as “good humor.” I found “lucky” itself too open to glib interpretation, but I think in that last line he is contrasting his true, African self against the influence of the races fortunate enough to be enjoying hegemony.

          As for the Reeves. Nice. It brings me to mind of the old joke

          Teacher: Obi, please use the word “asbestos” in a sentence
          Obi: (after a long pause) Sorry teacher, I’ve tried as best as I can, and I can’t think of how

          And of course there is the old “Morty McMope” skit from Sesame Street which sounds almost directly lifted from Reeves (with the punchline rhyme modified to something even more improbable). I couldn’t find it on any online video, but I did find this discussion thereof:


      • Judy Prince says:

        I do enjoy Peter Levi’s The Noise Made by Poems, Uche.

        How do you react to this:

        “It would be fascinating to know whether the influence of French on Eliot and Pound is more or less important than their breeding in American rather than insular English.” (p 70)

        He precedes it with:

        “It is probable enough that the greatest modern changes in English poetry, the introduction of free verse and the new deliberate counterpoint of classical short and long against the stress accent, which occurred also in France, depend on an uncontrollable physical change in the language. It is apparently a view shared by many philologists, though I supposed until recently I had arrived at it greatly daring on my own, that English has been altering from a stress-accented language in which pitch is free to be used expressively, to a language based not on stress but on a distinction between long and short syllables. If that should be true, then much of the verse technique of the modern movement in English, as opposed for example to Chesterton’s “Lepanto”, is simply a rationalization of the tonal values poets were already actually hearing in the language.”

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Ow, that sounds like Levi in a typical mood to put the wind up Yanks 🙂

          No, I don’t buy it. I think their Americanness was the most important thing about how they basically turned European poetry culture on its head. I suspect they were less susceptible to the powerful strait-jacketing influence of London on British poets (witness the fact that even though The Rhymers Club, which I mentioned already in comments on this piece, had all the points for Modernism in their docket, they never really made the breakthrough).

          Pound had Whitman, begrudgingly or not, as a subversive influence on his ear, and even though I agree that originally the Parnassians and Symbolistes, as well as the Metaphysical poets, were Eliot’s main influence at first, Mr “il miglior fabbro” Pound re-injected him with that ‘Merkin pattern, and Eliot was only too willing to embrace his sang fidèle (HA! GET IN SENGHOR! 😀 )

          I do think Levi has a point with regard to long/short syllable distinction, though I think that has only partly taken hold, but the funny thing is that the strongest influence in those terms is probably another American, Marianne Moore, whose syllabics famously influenced Auden, who influenced so many others.

          All that happens to be the background for an article I read last week, “Auden’s Horatian Syllabics”


          Warning: do not click that link unless you want to be subjected to the dreariest species of poetics on Earth. I suffered through it so I could warn you not to 😉

          Anyway, I touched briefly on that article in my review of its parent journal edition, “Milton, Graves, Eliot and Ars Versificandi”:


      • Gugh!!!

        “I have had occasion to revisit him more recently, and my more recent impression is quite different. I find myself wishing for more depth. He is a very apt stylist, to be sure, and a powerful advocate for Albion, hence his laureateship.”

        K, you’ve (re)read him more recently than me, but in my book, if it came to a race to the bottom between the pieces of initials which made up The MacSpaunday Group, I’d be hard put to it to decide whether to award the palm to Day Lewis or Spender.

        No, I take that back, let’s not forget their translations — Lewis’s Aenead was trite, boring, and inept, but compared to what Spender inflicted on Lorca and Rilke, it was a positive masterpiece of sensitive English verse.

        Equally, I’d agree with Judy that the best writing Day Lewis did was his detective novels, published as Nicholas Blake.

        (And didn’t his son have a starring part in _The Gangs of New York_?)

        Louis MacNeice, on the other hand, more than bears re-reading.


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          No you’ve quite caught me out. I thought it was enough to damn Lewis with faint praise, but no, if you press me on the point, when I say “He is a very apt stylist,” I guess I meant he knows how to count like any good bank teller.

          And the relentless patriotic doggerel that earned him the Laureateship is as poisonous to the ear of a citizen of a former colony as Kipling or R.L. Stevenson.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Since I just showed Irene a similar trick, I thought I’d tell you how to underline, Judy. To do so, put “< u>” at the beginning of the underlined but (important: but omit the quotes and remove the space after the “< "). And then "< /u>” at the end (again no quotes and remove the space).

      Warning: sorry, but it turns out this, like the center tag, does not work for regular commenters.

      • Judy Prince says:

        “regular” commenters, Uche? What are we, chopped liver? 😉

        What’s a “regular” commenter, and what’s an “irregular” commenter?

        Why can’t we just have icons like googlemail does? That’s sooooo straightforward.

        yrs truly,

        commenter extraordinaire and very regular!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          You are certainly extraordinaire, Judy, whatever else you are 🙂

          So some of my work for TNB requires that I have a few special admin knobs, which is what I mean in differentiation from someone logged in as a “regular commenter.”

          Even Google Mail has admins, you know 😉

  7. I used to love poetry, and I still dip in and out from time to time. I swear, though, that the moment I stepped off the plane in Korea a large part of me died. The poetic part. I’ve literally not written a line of poetry since coming here, and whenever I read a poem – even an old favourite – it lacks so much.

    But prior to that soul destroying experience, I was enthralled by the modernists. I loved the idea of a poem expressing a single idea or image. It sounds so boring, but the beauty is that it can be done so well. So much can come from so little.

    When I was travelling the US I took a tiny notebook with me and filled it. The point was that no poem should run more than one page – which, I think, was about 12 lines. I look back now and feel that a different person wrote them. But they really do bring back memories more vividly than the thousands of photos I took.

    As for poetry in general… I still dig Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman. Gregory Corso is cool. I never got into TS Eliot, but I liked Pound and loved WCW.

    I just read a quote from Hunter S. Thompson yesterday that says (and I’m paraphrasing here to some extent, because I can’t find it right now): “I’ve argued for years that the best literature no longer can be found in fiction, poetry or creative journalism. It exists only in music.” He then said that’s why he was learning the flute (which, I think, was a joke). He then explained that Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane, through lyrics and sound, expressed more intelligence than anyone since Hemingway.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Interesting and sad about the Korean curse bit. It does lead me to ask, though, about poetic culture in Korea, classical or modern. Is that something of which you’ve experienced any part at all?

      I do hope that by and by you come back to zest for reading and writing poetry.

      I also noticed that your mention of Modernism focuses on the particular aesthetic of the Imagists, and the line through e.g. Mallarmé in France, and Arthur Symons in England and into the influential sphere of Ezra Pound. I definitely picked up a sense of Symons in your idea of the tiny notebook exercise. Of course we know that Pound coached Eliot had in that direction, but that Eliot had to fling off the mantle when he wanted the opposite—a poetry that expressed the very grandest ideas through an ever-shifting kaleidoscope. Eliot persisted with other techniques of modernism, including representation of human psychology as emerging in science, and dissociation of linear construction and theme.

      Anyway, sorry if any of that is the typical drudge that spoils poetry for some, but I’m certainly not surprised with your preference for Pound over Eliot. Did you have much chance to explore others among the Imagists, including Aldington, Hulme, H.D., and even the bits of Yeats and Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson that fed into Imagism?

      The funny thing is that I first learned about Corso here on TNB, in an initially bad-tempered (probably just on my part) exchange with Becky. Of the Beats I’ve read mostly Ginsberg, but even after some further exploration in the past month or so, sparked by that exchange, and including Kaufman and Corso, I haven’t found myself able to warm to them at all.

      Re: the Thomson quote, that certainly foreshadows a planned, future theme in this column, even though I think the way he puts that is a gigantic exaggeration, and my personal taste in lyrics sounds rather different from Thomson’s.

      • I think in some ways poetry appealed to me more when I was younger and more impressionable. When I was at university I loved everything I read. Every new style was something I wanted to try myself. Maybe it’s my immersion in the real world that makes poetry a little less interesting.

        And yeah, with the modernists I tend to focus mostly on the imagiste element. I don’t know why, but it really grabbed me more.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Is it possible that as we transition from the fantastical world of childhood to the inflammatory/inflationary stage of adolescence and into the stark realities of adulthood, that for some of us, holding on to past modes of expression help us cope, and for others doing so brings disillusionment?

          I guess my point is that few of us read the sort of prose we read as children or teens, once we’ve become adults. I hope it’s fair to say that if we’re capable of finding prose that suits the stages of our lives, we could also find poems that do so?

          And nothing wrong with getting especially attracted to the imagiste element at all. Modernism is hugely complex, and I thought it useful to take a quick, closer peek.

        • I think that you’re probably right. In my case, however, I was surrounded by fans of poetry – by writers and readers. Now I’m in a place where nobody around me reads. It’s hard to get good books, and very, very tough to get poetry. I have the Collected (or Selected, I can’t recall which) Poems of Allen Ginsberg, but I rarely read it. From time to time I break open the files on my computer that contain my own old poetry and I’m amazed that I wrote it. It just doesn’t feel like my sort of thing. Same with music. I used to write songs.

          But away from it all now… It’s hard to find enthusiasm.

          If I get deep enough I could say that maybe I’m driven to impress. Maybe I wrote songs and poems because my friends did (or didn’t) and that it might impress them. Now I’m friends with people who don’t read. Whatever I write is thus blogged. So I write short essays or short fiction. (And working always on that damn novel…)

          But this is about me. I believe we were talking about poetry in general…

          I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Scroobius Pip (named after the Lear poem) and asked him a lot about poetry. It’s all in Beatdom #6, and I don’t have a copy to hand, but he talked a lot about poetry. I felt bad because 2 years ago I would have talked off the top of my head for hours, but now I’m a little lost.

          Anyway, he said that he didn’t really dig Ginsberg because after a few years it became all about the “pause.” He said poets all too often used pauses for dramatic effect.

          I love Pip but I’d have to disagree with him a little, although I understand where he’s coming from in regards Ginsberg. Spoken word poetry can be great, but is fraught with problems. Performance is so rarely as great as the performer thinks… and yes, a lot of it is a badly put across version of drama. The dreaded pause.

          I got a Beatdom submission a couple of months ago from a man named Kyle Chase. His poems blew my mind. It was the first time in 2 years that I’d read a poem I liked, and prompted me to get back on the internet and review my favourites. I published a few of his poems and have been raising the money to print a collection of his ever since. I recently had a bunch of them sent to Korea and gave them away to bookshops to sell. He writes… impossibly well. It’s hard to explain. Simplicity, I think, is his gift. Which harkens back to the imagistes in some respect.

        • Oh fuck, that was a damned essay I just wrote…

          Anyway, thanks for making me think about poetry again. It feels weird to turn those particular cogs in my head.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          > Oh fuck, that was a damned essay I just wrote…

          That’s just my evil plan working. Relax. It won’t hurt a bit 😛

          Side note: The Book Depository claims to ship anywhere in the world for free. I do wonder if that counts for used/discount books, but I’ve bought quite a few UK books you can’t otherwise readily get n the US.

          Since you’ve been inclined to such forthrightness, this is indeed all about you. In general we discuss a motley of grand and petty issues at TNB by exploring our own personal journeys, and I don’t see why poetry should be any different.

          I do think it’s too easy to substitute drama for poetry in performance, but I actually think a lot of that has been bled out of performance poetry for quite a few years now. These days poetry in performance is more likely to be a breathless succession of layered lines, and all about the words, and words and words and how they rattle across your eardrums in waves from windward to leeward. I used to really turn up my nose at performance poetry, and then about five years ago, among many of the best, it really had turned into poetry performance.

          There are actually quite a few TNB poets in that cadre, mostly because Rich and Milo are so well connected in that space, but my mind does fly to Geoff Kagan Trenchard whom I first heard well before (my intersection with) TNB, on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam


          I should ask him whether he’d be willing to record that as an mp3 for us.

          When you talk of all those annoying, dramatic pauses, I think immediately of Garrison Keillor, who does The Poet’s Almanac on US public radio. I can’t really begrudge him his relatively wide degree of outreach for poetry, but sometimes I think he does more harm than good. He really has a bit of a tin ear, and lawd! he loves those pauses, pregnant with empty beachballs.

          Re: Kyle Chase, thanks. Found him here.


          I have a day of off-site work to begin soon, but will get back to him.

          Your line of discussion is just what I was hoping for. Thanks.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I’ve just written a mini-anthology for my course and a rationale explaining my creative choices and influences. An awful lot of the influences are from songs rather than actual poems.

      Most of the poems I wrote as well, they started off as song lyrics and have been sort of altered.

      I wish I had enough word limit left to put that HST quote in. I remember reading that somewhere. I haven’t yet failed an assignment that references Thompson. And that’s pretty much all of them.

      I’m slowly being won over by poetry Uche. Although I prefer writing it to reading it. I certainly appreciate poetry more than I did, but it still lacks something that excites me. I love prose, prose excites me… poetry… not so much…

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Fair enough. I’m the reverse, I can and have to deal with prose, but it doesn’t light a candle for me as poetry does. But that is why I intend this column to be large, and to contain multitudes. I’ll certainly be interested, as I go along, to see if I end up conjuring a poem or two that does excite you.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Every now and then there is a poem that I don’t just appreciate, but genuinely love. But rarely. I think though that it may have a lot to do with my own preconceptions about poetry… I don’t know…

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          That’s quite all right, of course. I’m hoping we can learn more as the discussion progresses. Even if I can help crystallize your reasons for certainly not appreciating poetry, I’d count that as a win.

  8. Wendy Chin-Tanner says:

    In answer to the question, “Theoretically speaking, can poems be aimed at a “target group” the way advertisements are?” the poet Vera Pavlova answers:

    “Those who read poetry are precisely its target group. And the group is not numerous. To understand poems one needs to have a special organ of perception. Anybody can listen to music, but not everybody knows how to read notes or sight-read musical scores. In order to read poetry one also needs to study a kind of system of notation.”

    What do you think of that?

    I love this column, by the way!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I think one is never likely to produce true poetry consciously aiming at a “target group” as advertisers do, but I do believe that, after the fact of its creation, poetry can be used in communication to such groups, if it’s found to fit a communications need. It’s important for us not to be so caught up in the purity of poetry that we refuse to let that happen.

      I do disagree with the idea that special faculties are needed to appreciate poetry. I think Irene and co help give the lie to that, having pointed out how naturally children tend to poetry. Perhaps what really happens is that we do all sorts of things to our “organs of perception” in schools spoil the magic. I also strongly believe that the magic can be recaptured, and that some examples of poetry are better suited than others to help that process of reappraisal.

      To some extent, in this column, I see those who have lost the quickness to poetry as a “target group,” and I do consciously try to find poems that will suit communication with that group. That’s certainly not at all to marginalize all these great comments, mostly by the poetry lovers among us. I think that’s important, too, because the energy of poetry-lovers engaging each other on the topic might be the best way possible to demonstrate the wonder of our beloved art.

      Thanks for that thought-provoking quote.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Great quote for posing strongly and eternally debatable issues, Wendy.

      One fact that might reinforce Vera Pavlova’s saying the group of poetry readers is not numerous, is that most people who actually purchase poetry books and pamphlets (i.e., chapbooks, or under-40 pages), are the family and friends of the poet.

      A second fact is that those “friends” of the poet who are purchasing the poetry book or pamphlet are often those who have become acquainted with the poets from going to poetry readings where they hear the poet read a few poems from their books and they can buy the books right there.

      Most of the published poets I know are university-educated, and they’ve always loved reading poetry as well as writing poetry. However, that said and understood, the two poets whose work most delights me have not attended universities, and their self-education has led them to wider contexts and contacts in the poetry world. Their understandings strike me as unusually fresh, as do their poems.

      Re Pavlova’s note that to understand poems one “needs to have a special organ of perception”, feels true to me mainly in the sense that the big basket of tools that poets use is better understood (both consciously and unconsciously) as a person reads more and more poems. Obviously, the wider and deeper the range of poems a person reads, the more they’ll “get” the tools and be able to use them for their own writing as well as for evaluating others’ works.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        I agree that some people develop a bigger basket of tools for dealing with Poetry than others, but I think the importance of the diversity and flexibility of poetry is that you can appreciate it whether all you have is a fixed spanner, or whether you have the latest Black&Decker Octopus DIY 3000 ready to hand. And I think there are many pockets of poetry that suit some people with specially-shaped tools that not even the experts among the experts have ever heard of before.

        To put it in terms of computer science (possibly not helpful at all 😉 ), I think Pavlova’s argument tends towards appreciation of poetry as a hill-climbing exercise. I think that if one must accept such a mechanical approach to poetical faculties, one must at least admit that there are many hills, and that everyone can find a local peak, and don’t worry whether or not your local peak is the highest because no one even knows what the highest peak is, anyway.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yes, oh DIY Uche! I think we agree on the “tools of perception” idea that Wendy quoted Vera Pavlova’s saying: “To understand poems one needs to have a special organ of perception. Anybody can listen to music, but not everybody knows how to read notes or sight-read musical scores. In order to read poetry one also needs to study a kind of system of notation.”

          You and I seem to believe that pretty much anyone can understand and appreciate some poetry; in fact, that some folks who haven’t the knowledge of the “mechanics” of poetry can understand poetry in more novels ways than those who know the mechanics.

          But, you know, I’m often slightly cage’ily skeptical about the idea of “understanding” poetry. Having participated in a lively, if wild and wacky, experiment on a poetry list, I found that participants strongly disagreed about the MEANING of a poem. Not just a little disagreeing, but MAJOR disagreeing about what the poet “meant”. The participants had to write what they thought the poet meant; i.e., to paraphrase the poet’s lines, and you could clearly see how each participant differed from others.

          Another reason I’m uncomfortable in discussions about “understanding” poetry is that I loathe the ubiquitous oppression of “experts” on poetry. I just want to shut them up. But, I, too, think I’m an “expert”, at least on some aspects of poetry. Re the well published (or not quite published) poetry “experts”—-unless they have fascinating facts—-note, I say “facts”—-illuminating a poem or a poet, I can’t be bothered……unless, of course, they thrill me with their prose and their insights—–just like a fantastic poem can do.

          Like most people, I *love* only a very very few poems, some which are definitely loved by “experts” and some which are not and are not known by anyone but the poet and her family and friends.

          Regarding teachers ruining students’ love of poetry, I must step in (bcuz I was a teacher!) and say that millions have become avid readers and writers of poetry BECAUSE of teachers’ love of it and of bringing poems to their students to read, think about and talk about.

          Which reminds me that I recently bought a terrific poetry anthology intended for middle-school-aged girls, giving them poems about their joys, concerns, problems and searchings. It’s Elise Paschen’s _poetry speaks who i am_ . It comprises more than 100 poems, together with a CD of many poets reading their work.

          Jumping to every 5th poet’s name on the “contents” list: Ron Koertge, Rosellen Brown, Nikki Grimes, Sonia Sanchez, Elizabeth Alexander, David Yezzi, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Rainy Ortiz, Toi Derricotte, David Ignatow, Stephen Dunn, A.E. HOusman, Kenneth Koch, Naomi Shihab Nye, X. J. Kennedy, Nancy Willard, Molly Peacock, Philip Schultz, Rainer Maria Rilke. Oh, Shaksper’s in it, too.

          _poetry speaks who i am_ is published by Sourcebooks, 2010. I bought mine from amazon.com and love the book!!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Thanks for the recommendation. Amazon link is: http://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Speaks-Who-Inspiration-Independence/dp/1402210744

          Interesting mix of poets in that sample.

          As for my dig at teachers. Hey, I figure no fun if I stop being a teacher’s terror just because I’m out of school. But when it rolls to the real, I know they’re heroes, and some of them even manage to do more good than harm for potential lovers of poetry.

  9. angela says:

    i love both those poems, and your debut posting for this column!

    i don’t usually read poetry but when i take the time to understand a poem, i’m always gladdened and inspired.

    the only poem i’ve memorized is an ee cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond/any experience,your eyes have their silence.” there’s something about memorizing a poem. it helped me notice cadence, rhymes, and off-rhymes i hadn’t noticed before.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I did not want to scare people off in my very first installment, but I do plan some gentle coaxing for people to find something they love, and memorize it. Memorizing poems has the most spectacular effect on your ability to enjoy poetry, and to perceive those patterns in other poems. I believe that it even has a spectacular effect on your own writing, in any genre. It’s not really as hard as one would think—poems are designed to be memorized. They cry out to be memorized. And it’s worth just trying out one to evaluate the rewards.

      So thanks for backing up my future cajoling 🙂

  10. Lorna says:

    I am a lover of poetry. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with my short attention span, but I enjoy a deep and moving poem that ebs and flows and inspires me to think about the words long after I’ve read them. Lately I have been enjoying ancient poetry by Mira Bai.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Nice. I’m curious as to whether you enjoy Meera’s poems purely for their lyrical sense, or whether you are also drawn in by their spiritual content.

      • Lorna says:

        It’s a little of both, Uche. I am inherently drawn to any writing that searches ones soul or that transfers lyrically. Yes, poetry is quite like a song for my soul. I enjoyed both of the poems you share here and am happily taking note of the poetry mentions in the comments. Thanks for sharing you love with us Uche.

  11. Don Mitchell says:

    Uche — you asked if we had “any poems you recommend to people who normally wouldn’t bother with poetry?” Here’s a good poem for young man who thinks that poetry is, you know, about stuff I don’t understand, and is, you know, all fancy words and shit.


    To whomever taught me the word dickhead,
    I owe a debt of thanks.
    It gave me a way of being in the world of men
    when I most needed one,

    when I was pale and scrawny,
    naked, goosefleshed
    as a plucked chicken
    in a supermarket cooler, a poor

    forked thing stranded in the savage
    universe of puberty, where wild
    jockstraps flew across the steamy

    skies of locker rooms,
    and everybody fell down laughing
    at jokes I didn’t understand.

    But dickhead was a word as dumb
    and democratic as a hammer, an object
    you could pick up in your hand,
    and swing,

    saying dickhead this and dickhead that,
    a song that meant the world
    was yours enough at least
    to bang on like a garbage can,

    and knowing it, and having that
    beautiful ugliness always
    cocked and loaded in my mind,
    protected me and calmed me like a psalm.

    Now I have myself become
    a beautiful ugliness,
    and my weakness is a fact
    so well established that
    it makes me calm,

    and I am calm enough
    to be grateful for the lives I
    never have to live again;

    but I remember all the bad old days
    back in the world of men,
    when everything was serious, mysterious, scary,
    hairier and bigger than I was;
    I recall when flesh

    was what I hated, feared
    and was excluded from:

    Hardly knowing what I did,
    or what would come of it,
    I made a word my friend.

    — Tony Hoagland

    • Judy Prince says:

      Tony Hoaglund, a fascinating man, Don. Thanks for the eye-opening poem. 😉

      He guest-edited _Ploughshares_ (Winter 2009-2010), and in his Introduction is this excerpt I found engaging and sharply wise:

      “By morning I had changed my name and my plans. With nothing but a sleeping bag and pack, I climbed aboard an old school bus full of people who were following the fruit-picking season up through Utah, Idaho, and Washington State. For the next six months or so, I practiced a regimen which included avoiding my reflection, not combing my hair, keeping no “personal” money, renouncing sex. I wanted (poor boy!) to exterminate my vanity. I wanted to live inside a union of people, in a cooperative family of one kind or another. I wanted some relief from the first person singular. My new companions had names like Buckwheat, Laughing Oak, and Thirty Nine, plus a pudgy ten-year-old named Arthur whose mother had abandoned him with “the family” while she pursued some tantric crush. From the dumpsters behind supermarkets and Burger Kings, we foraged all the day-old food we needed. We stayed in migrant shacks on farms and orchards where we worked across the West and then the Northwest. We cooked on woodstoves, picked cherries and apples alongside families frrom Oaxaca and Juarez, worked until a crop was done and then we moved to where more jobs had opened.”

      “My memories are sketchy of that year (and of many others) but I do know that I was satisfied in some way that had to do with being simplified.”


      “Let’s just say that my time among the transcendentalists made me fiercely suspicious of easy innocence. And my time among the realists has made me fiercely protective of our right to flight. Thus, the poems and stories gathered here in Plougthshares reflect these two broad bands of human temperament: the skeptical scrutiny and the rapturous updraft.”

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Nice. I think if more people understood that most poets are not gilded academics, and that many have lived the sorts of rough and confused existence as they have, they might be more inclined to give a listen. I’m not crazy about Philip Levine, but he is good for that, and it goes back to John Clare, and even further to whatever poet was holding the oaten reed of the times.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks for sharing, Don. I suppose it really is of the reportedly bewildering experience of US high school, which I never attended, and is thus doubly bewildering to me 🙂 I suspect what we want to do with “Dickhead” for max effect is put it into the mouths of one of those Breakfast Club male actors? Or the present-day equivalent?

  12. Becky says:


    I think one of poetry’s biggest problems is that it keeps begging for readers.

    At the end of the day, we know something they don’t.

    Let them come to us.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Poetry has always begged for readers. That is part of the sacred charge of poetry. Whether it is the makar or scop angling for court, or the farthest-sailing ship. Whether it’s the griot wandering from village to village entertaining the children first, so that the adults would come out if their children told them that one had come by who is not to be missed. Whether it’s Meera, mentioned by Lorna above, traveling the breadths of India and living on her Padavali. Whether it’s Artistotle or Sydney or Shelley.

      Poetry has always gone to its readers as a supplicant. For my part I hope the affectations of the 20th century won’t permanently destroy that tradition. I’m much encouraged by the media developments of the 21st century.

  13. Becky says:

    I like “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne,

    “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats

    “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

    “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot

    “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath

    “Meditations at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass

    “Tough Company” by Charles Bukowski

    “A Radio With Guts” by Charles Bukowski

    And the Odyssey.

    And a bunch of others.

    This post is not directed at me, is it?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      That last bit is not fair, Becky. For what it’s worth, I’ve had a broad variety of discussions on poetry with many people of late, some of whom have posted on this thread, some of whom are professed poetry lovers, and some of whom are professedly suspicious of the art. This post is for all of them, and for others.

      And it’s for you, too. You’ve offered a wonderful list. Truly. Thanks.

      • Becky says:

        I only meant that poetry can be that much more intimidating if…how to put it? If it begins to look like an insider’s game.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I see again. I’m not sure what afflicts me so that I miss so many of your nuances without further explanation. I don’t have a problem at all with the fact that many of the poems on your list are the sort that would intimidate a non-insider, so to speak. But many people who come to enjoy poetry will at first dabble in this and that, and find one of the great hermeneutical pieces that just hits them right, and compels them in to plumb its secrets.

          I absolutely love the first five poems you listed, and I think they are all the sorts of poems that people grow to appreciate more readily than one would suspect. I’m not familiar with the last three; I’ve never been a big fan of Hass, and I quite dislike Bukowski, but Bukowski is one of those of whom you often hear “Man I’m just not into poetry, but Bukowski kicks ass!” so it’s good to get a few examples of him for folks to sample, even if they come from an insider.

        • Becky says:

          Bukowski is one who gets a bad rap, I think, not because of his writing but because of who tends to read him.

          “Play the piano drunk like a percussion instrument until the fingers begin to bleed a bit” was the first collection of his that I ever bought after a long tenure as a bonafide hater. I can no longer remember which poem in it prompted me to give him a chance, but it remains my favorite.

          Much to my consternation, the more I read the more I was unable to escape that underneath all the hookers and booze and vers libre was a super-intelligent, hyper-literate, and darkly, slyly funny man.

          And all of it while being accessible and popularly (relatively speaking) appealing.

          Gotta look out though. Under all that cynical funnyman business is a seriously pained, depressing thread. If you read too much of him, he can create a brooding funk just like that.

        • I love that his poems just read like really, really short prose. I mean, if you take a passage from his novels and press “ENTER” every few words, you’ll get his poetry. It’s great. Maybe not technically brilliant, but as you say, “accessible.”

        • Becky says:

          Oh no.

          The kiss of death.

          “Just prose with short lines.”

          Lord have mercy on you, David Wills. That’s about the worst condemnation any poet/reader of poetry can give. Luckily for Bukowski, I’m not sure you’re right, but still…I’m going to pretend you never said that.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re right, Becky. Oh dear. David has said “it”, and now “it” cannot be erased.

          If dear Rodent, a fellow Scot, should read David’s comment, he will be teaching us poetics for EVER! I kid, actually. I think it was Marjorie Perloff who pointed to line endings as THE diff between prose and poetry. She gave a great historically backed argument for her notion, but, unfortunately, I found her own poem examples unhelpful.

          As one of those who dislike “chopped prose” poems, I came out full throttle attacking Philip Levine’s poems. I could “get” and appreciate what he was writing easily, mainly bcuz it was prose. That is, not only was it reasoned/story-telling/exampled/explained, but each line, just short of the right-hand margin, could easily have been precisely at the right-hand margin, just like prose. And then I read one of his “poems” that was actually a poem. What’s going on, I thought. Then dear Rodent actually listened to Levine reading his poems, and he asked Levine about his line endings. I’ll leave it to Rodent to tell us what Levine said.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    I was always a big fan of Siegfried Sassoon’s work.

    I’ve found that what it took to get me into poetry was to hear someone who love the poem reading it aloud. To read it on the page was always very stilted and dead to me. Education. Pffft. What good’s it ever done me?

    And it’s easy to be intimidated by something that everyone else seems to appreciate but me.

    Milo Martin’s reading of his poem about finding a spot of milk at the bottom of a glass was something of a turning point for me personally.

    • Becky says:

      Ahhh look.

      Simon said it even before I did.

      “it’s easy to be intimidated by something that everyone else seems to appreciate but me”

      I swear I did not read this before posting the response above.

      But Simon, what do you do when the way the poem lies on the page matters? What if it alters the meaning or is important to the reading?

      See…I find that poems read aloud, unless they are genuinely written to be read aloud and only read aloud, effectively shed at least 50% of their significance/meaning, if not more.

      That is, I find them emptier, not fuller. What’s to be done? IS all that matters whether we like/dislike them? I don’t know.

      If it’s not too forward, Simon, have you ever been taught how to read poetry? I mean, it’s not a secret or a terribly complex thing, and there are more ways than one to go about it, but there is…or can be…a method to it.

      I hated poetry because I didn’t “get” it for YEARS. And, not to sound like I advocate abuse, but I had one teacher who recognized that I didn’t actually dislike it, I simply resented it for eluding me. He basically held my head under it. Like a poetry swirly…and lo and behold, I was not traumatized, but liberated.

      Then again, maybe it is truly not for everyone. Maybe that’s just the bottom line. In love with poetry as I am, I have trouble believing/accepting this, but maybe it is true.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I haven’t encountered many poems where that’s been the case, Becky – but my exposure has been woefully small.

        It’s not too forward – and nope. I certainly haven’t been taught how to read poetry. Odd, that the question of where I went to school should come up twice in the same day in conversation with you. We must have accidentally tuned in to something, because this keeps happening to us. I guess you’re going to win five grand soon?

        • Becky says:

          It just seems to me that you would be the sort to like poetry, if only for its ability to condense absolutely expansive ideas into very compact spaces.

          In this regard, reading is somewhat like unpacking….or unzipping, if you would like a digital reference.

          On the other hand, reading poetry can take a lot of patience. It can be slow and very line-by-line. It doesn’t have to be a sterile as a dissection, though. Maybe think of it more as tantric sex.

          Or whatever you prefer.

          I’ve been sitting a half inch from The Waste Land, breathing on it, getting breathed on, but not touching, for about 10 years.

          I have a feeling the payoff will be big. But even if the payoff never comes, the anticipation has been worth the price of admission.

          Of course, you don’t HAVE to do it that way. There is something to be said for the poetry-reading quickie as well. Read it, 30 seconds, take what you can from it, and part ways.

          I could SO use $5k right now. And it was twice in two days for me, but okay.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Hulloa! So you had an old-fashioned poetry revival baptism, Becky? Nice one!

        God showed our races the alphabet sign; said it won’t be water, but fire next time…

        • Becky says:

          Did it wash the demons out or in, though?

          I’m not sure.

          I’m content either way.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          @Becky: And I think those have been the times when I’ve responded the most to poetry, when something’s gone ‘click’ and I’ve thought Oh! Oh my God! There’s so much going on there, that’s flowing through one end of these words and out the other to me!

        • Becky says:

          The more poetry you read, the more you start to recognize that there is an ongoing conversation between poets, which gives clues to intent and “meaning” and so on.

          I mean, for example, if you’re reading some contemporary poet and you all of a sudden see a golden bird, is it Yeat’s Byzantine bird? If it is, it might be standing there as a reference to the timelessness of art, or to Yeats or a handful of other things, and if that’s the case, what’s happening to the bird, and so on.

          This, for me, is one of the most impressive things about poetry. This running dialogue. The more you read, the more you become acquainted with the common topics of discussion, the more the individual statements make sense.

          Kind of like hanging around TNB in a way. On a massive, millenia-spanning scale.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Oh, cool! I totally didn’t know that. Literally, no awareness.

          Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Simon, well, that’s actually quite normal. Poetry as primarily an aural medium in Europe until soon after the Renaissance, which was not very long ago in the history of the art, of course. Even then I’d suggest it’s always been 50/50 aural/visual, despite the emergence of visual poetry in the 20th century. Recording technology and the like, and especially digital media mean that we can really get back to those roots, and you are right to want to do so.

      I’m trying to encourage more mp3s of poems read by the poets in the TNB Poetry section.

      As for the intimidation bit. I think that might be a general problem and my hope is that my column can go a little way towards reducing that. First of all, there is nothing wrong with not connecting with something, even though everyone else does. That’s just something that needs to be said over and over. So far I love the fact that there is such a wildly eclectic representation of poems in the comments section. Something for everyone, and if you don’t like one sort, check out another. All the way along to Silverstein and such.

      And I should bug Milo to record “We Used to be Gods.”

      • Simon Smithson says:

        As with most things – maybe all things – I think intimidation comes from unfamiliarity. Like a cat in a new house, I’ll have to sniff around the various rooms and spend some time skulking beneath the drinks trolley before I feel safe enough to fully commit.

        Speaking personally, it does help to develop an understanding that poetry is not something you instinctively get or don’t, it’s something to learn to appreciate (or not).

  15. Preach, brother, preach. I just love working with you in the Poetry section of TNB, Uche. Your love of poetry and commitment to the art form is truly commendable. It helps to further strengthen and deepen my own love of the craft as well.

  16. Greg Olear says:


    Love this. Love the poems. I hope it keeps coming.

    One of the best novels I’ve read recently is Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, in which, as the title suggests, poetry is a theme. The narrator at one point says that he loves poetry, but that most modern poetry doesn’t resonate with him; that’s it’s been MFA’d into irrelevance. With poems, I think, the struggle is between sentimentality and passion; there’s a line where the latter ends and the former begins, and you want to toe that line without crossing it.

    In college, I memorized “To His Coy Mistress,” and used it as a pick-up line. Totally worked. A poem 400 years old!

    My favorite poem of all time — although there are way too many to really say that — is Milton’s sonnet on blindness, the one that ends thus:

    …His state
    Is kingly. Thousands at His bidding speed
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest.
    They also serve who only stand and wait

    It gives me chills EVERY TIME I think about it.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks. Glad you like it. I haven’t been able to keep up discussion all week because I’ve been on a biz trip to Columbus (I’m at CMH right now), but overall, given the lively discussion, I’ll need to be chained away from my keyboard for it not to continue.

      “To His Coy Mistress” is a great source of chat-up, but it would have been an absolute riot if one of the ladies had replied with lines from A. D. Hope’s “His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell”


      I do struggle with motivation to read novels, but Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets is one that I’ve thought to sample, and on your recommendation I’ll go to’t.

  17. sheree says:

    Can’t believe I missed this most enjoyable post. Thanks!

  18. Jordan Ancel says:

    Uche, thank you for sharing these poems.

    I admit, I am one of those whom poetry frightens, at times. I do love poetry, but too often I read some verse that is so far over my head, and my lack of understanding intimidates me.

    I think it is because of early schooling, where I was forced to read poetry, and got very little direction about how to read/understand it. Also, being dyslexic, my comprehension when I read is, well retarded, so I may not grasp thing right away.

    But I do like these poems. Especially the second one. The first one, I really like the rhythm, but the second really spoke to me.

    Jumping across worlds
    In condensed time
    After the awkward fall
    We are always at the starting point

    This couldn’t be more true.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Just learned, in the immortal words of my flight’s gate agent: “this plane is broke,” so I’m stuck in Columbus for at least a few hours, and glad to read something nice 🙂

      I’m curious. Are there any particular poems or styles of poetry that seem to appeal to you, dyslexia considered, any that really resonate right away, or that come with an added shot of satisfaction after a few readings?

      I think the fact that “Parachute Men” spoke to you so means I should be able to find more you’ll enjoy.

      Thanks for gracing this particular starting point.

  19. Jordan Ancel says:

    I’m not very educated about poetry, I can only name a few poets, most of whom I don’t relate to, but I do know what I like when I read it. If I don’t get something at first, I’ll keep rereading until I either do, or I just have to give up.

    I do like subject matter about the human condition, self-exploration, the universe. I like things that can inspire, yet I also like poems that go to the depth of human emotion and pain. I find that it’s a way to identify with and work out things of myself.

    This is one of my fovrites:

    William Butler Yeats

    The Circus Animals’ Desertion

    I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
    I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
    Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
    I must be satisfied with my heart, although
    Winter and summer till old age began
    My circus animals were all on show,
    Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
    Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

    What can I but enumerate old themes,
    First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
    Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
    Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
    Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
    That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
    But what cared I that set him on to ride,
    I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

    And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
    ‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
    She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
    But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
    I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
    So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
    And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
    This dream itself had all my thought and love.

    And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
    Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
    Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
    It was the dream itself enchanted me:
    Character isolated by a deed
    To engross the present and dominate memory.
    Players and painted stage took all my love,
    And not those things that they were emblems of.

    Those masterful images because complete
    Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
    A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
    Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
    Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
    Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
    I must lie down where all the ladders start
    In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

    I don’t even understand it entirely, but I love it.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Jordan. I appreciate that despite your disclaimer, you picked a great one for a favorite. I have that in another one of my favorite anthologies, “Cambridge Book of English Verse.” I’m not home, so I don’t have an ISBN or anything, but it’s actually a volume I recommend for a lot of folks uncertain about poetry. Assuming it’s still in print, of course. Like many of my favorite poetry books I bought it in Nigeria in the late 80s.

      I’ll find it when I get home and post more info about the volume.

      • Jordan Ancel says:

        Thanks, Uche. I’ll see if I can find it online.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Got home and found it. “Cambridge Book of English Verse 1900-39,” Allen Freer &John Andrew, eds. Cambridge Uni Press 1971 ed. Green cover. ISBN 0 521 07763 X. My note says I bought it in 1989 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria (not sure why I threw i that detail 🙂 )

          Anyway, includes Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, Edward Thomas, de la Mare, D.H. Lawrence, Poind, Eliot, Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Auden.

          It’s a stellar volume, and despite the narrow range, I highly recommend it to folks exploring poetry.

        • Jordan Ancel says:


          I’ll try to find it, or something like it. Thanks for the recommendation, Uche. I always like suggestions of material by passionate people who are sensitive to the needs of the layman.

  20. Mary McMyne says:

    I use E. E. Cummings in second-semester freshman composition courses to introduce students to thinking critically about poetry–because his poems are like puzzles, cryptic to them at first, but rewarding by the end. I usually start with [Buffalo Bill’s]:

    Buffalo Bill’s
    who used to
    ride a watersmooth-silver
    and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
    he was a handsome man
    and what i want to know is
    how do you like your blue-eyed boy,
    Mister Death?

    This poem works wonders. I spend forty-five minutes, in a classroom of twenty, charting out form, content, and idea, and handing out printouts from dictionaries–words they need defined–and an encyclopedia entry on Buffalo Bill himself. After that, I get multiple volunteers from community college students, who read the poem aloud in a Western accent, with somebody whistling that song they play in Westerns, you know, as tumbleweeds roll across the dirt. After I read the end of the poem myself, in a lowered voice, a confrontational tone, the classroom goes quiet.

    Other great suggestions: [anyone lived in a pretty how town] and [next to of course god america i] by Cummings, “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins (works better if you’ve read [Because I could not stop for Death] by Dickinson first), and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” about which I synchronously wrote a TNB piece earlier today, a piece by a poet I once shunned, but whom I now love, without even reading this piece.

    I love the second poem here, the way you feel, as you tumble down the short lines, as if you are falling…

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hey Mary,

      Cummings is certainly fun, and I can see how he would be a good one for the teacher. Of course from your description, you color the poem in class in with the violet of your own passion. That’s what students need more of.

      Now gotta go find your TNB piece mentioning Frost. I’m so way behind…

  21. Sig says:

    Too many poets to name them all – but Stevens (Wallace) shivers in my spine – every time


    That the glass would melt in heat,
    That the water would freeze in cold,
    Shows that this object is merely a state,
    One of many, between two poles. So,
    In the metaphysical, there are these poles.

    Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
    Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
    And in that state, the glass is a pool.
    Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
    When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws

    And in the water winding weeds move round.
    And there and in another state–the refractions,
    The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems
    Crash in the mind–But, fat Jocundus, worrying
    About what stands here in the centre, not the glass,

    But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
    It is a state, this spring among the politicians
    Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
    One would have still to discover. Among the dogs
    and dung,
    One would continue to contend with one’s ideas.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      “Dry Loaf” is the Stevens I knew best (and a fine poem), but this is a neat piece. Very interesting how he braids the ideas of glass and water. Vitreous and aqueous. How he elaborates them faintly with glimpses of other imagined things, stepping deeper into mystery with each stanza. I’m curious whether you remember what little flourishes in the poem eventually drew you in to plumb its depths.

  22. Carl D'Agostino says:

    These two poem are charming with some thoughtful depth. Poems I hate or think just plain stupid – anything in New Yorker. And these alleged poets just swoon over each other’s words as though each poem is an epiphany of some sort and manufacture conferences with awards to give each other building an alleged portfolio of multiple publishing with their silly self produced books. It’s like pulling words out of a Scrabble bag and arranging them in some mysterious way believing that it is literature.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Oddly, I first encountered a poem in the New Yorker when a friend on the old Prodigy network (remember that! old school!) told me that he usually hated poems he’d found there, but that there is one I should check out. He gave me the issue info and I went and found it at the library and photocopied it. It was Alice Fulton’s “News of the Occluded Cyclone.” I can’t find the actual text online, but apparently New Yorker subscribers can read it here:


      I love that poem, but as my friend warned, browsing other NYer issues in hopes of finding other purple pieces was a very unrewarding experience. Most of the poetry they printed was, for me, dreck. I’ve given up trying, though if anyone has spotted a good one in the NYer, I’m always up to check it out, and this time I can actually purchase the issue. Interestingly, I’ve seen a few other Fulton poems, and none of the others really appeal to me the way this one does.

      I know what you mean about the Scrabble bag comment. I think that modernist poetry was intended to heighten meaning by engaging more than the purely literal faculties, but that too many people use that as an excuse to forget that meaning is still the ultimate goal.

  23. Sig says:

    @ Uche: It is the phrase “Light is the lion that comes down to drink” that first swept me up – I had to know what he was saying. I found that if I read it aloud, and followed the punctuation exactly it began to settle in and unravel for me. I do believe that poetry is, at its core – a kind of music and should be spoken aloud to get the full effect.

    @ Carl: There are a few poems by Bukowski where he rips the poetry establishment hard. There is a phrase from one – sorry can’t recall the name right now – that goes “The poetry boys are at it again”. It reminds me of your comment.

    BTW – Nicholson Baker’s latest novel “The Anthologist” is a must read for anyone who is interested in poets and the “official” poetry world. Painful – but funny.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yes, poetry is indeed a form of music, and I believe it truly comes alive in the reading.

      Becky, in another thread (ad originally to my misunderstanding), mentioned that Corso had similar complaints about the state of contemporary poetry. I must say that paying serious attention as an editor of the genre has made me much more hopeful that it may not be the most prominent work, but there is an extraordinary amount of good poetry being written in the shadows.

      Cool. Second recommendation in this thread of a novel for those interested in poetry. I’ll put it on the list.

  24. Kimberly says:

    I will not lie, nor pretend – poetry is something that I do not seek, but occasionally, finds me regardless.

    This, in particular, has been my very favorite, for as long as I can remember:

    somewhere i have never travelled – e.e. cummings:

    somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
    any experience,your eyes have their silence:
    in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
    or which i cannot touch because they are too near

    your slightest look will easily unclose me
    though i have closed myself as fingers,
    you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
    (touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

    or if your wish be to close me, i and
    my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
    as when the heart of this flower imagines
    the snow carefully everywhere descending;
    nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
    the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
    compels me with the color of its countries,
    rendering death and forever with each breathing

    (i do not know what it is about you that closes
    and opens;only something in me understands
    the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
    nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

    I also am quite fond of (speaking of Shel Silverstein):


    “I cannot go to school today,”
    Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
    I have the measles and the mumps,
    A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
    My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
    I’m going blind in my right eye.
    My tonsils are as big as rocks,
    I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox.
    And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
    And don’t you think my face looks green?
    My leg is cut, my eyes are blue—
    It might be instamatic flue.
    I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
    I’m sure that my left leg is broken—
    My hips hurt when I move my chin,
    My belly button’s caving in,
    My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
    My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
    My nose is cold, my toes are numb,
    I have a silver in my thumb.
    My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
    I hardly whisper when I speak.
    My tongue is filling up my mouth,
    I think my hair is falling out.
    My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
    My temperature is one-o-eight.
    My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
    There is a hole inside my ear.
    I have a hangnail, and my hart is—what?
    What’s that? What’s that you say?
    You say today is… Saturday?
    G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

    So what i guess I mean by posting these two, in particular, is that poetry, to me, is something that reaches me on a deeply personal level – be it aching beauty or gut-ripping comedy.

    (I’m often shy about it, but I prefer the achingly beautiful ones the best.)

  25. […] the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what […]

  26. brainwaves says:


    […]Uche Ogbuji | Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1 | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

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